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White against Black: The Hidden Issue in the US Presidential Campaign

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McCain against Obama. Republican against Democrat. Old against young. There are a number of ways to define the ongoing battle for the White House. But the most important is getting short shrift: black against white.

In a Tuesday interview on CNN, a young woman named Rosemary interviewed a congressman from the US House of Representatives. It wasn’t just anybody. Rather, the news channel sat down with Jesse Jackson Jr., the son of the famous civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, who twice made a run for the White House. Jackson Jr. is a serious man and a steady politician. Indeed, he seems largely free of the theatrics for which his father still has a weakness.

During the course of the interview, the CNN moderator asked Jackson Jr. an excellent question. She wanted to know if he thought white Americans felt a bit alienated by the sight of Michelle Obama and her two daughters on stage in Denver on the first night of the Democratic National Convention.

Jackson Jr. dodged the query. He talked about how Michelle Obama showed America that her worries were the same as their worries -- that she too is concerned about her children's future, that she too holds American values near and dear. Jackson Jr. said that, with her speech, Michelle Obama made it clear to her audience how tenuous John McCain's connection to America's mainstream is -- especially, Jackson Jr. was careful to point out, given that McCain owns seven homes.

The question asked by the CNN journalist, in fact, was so good that Jackson Jr. simply couldn't answer it. The reason is clear: The biggest wild card in this presidential duel between Barack Obama and John McCain is the fact that one of them is white and the other is black. Whenever a question about race is asked, the interviewee either tries to act as if he hadn't heard properly, or the answer quickly meanders into meaninglessness.

On Monday evening, Michelle Obama and her daughters appeared just as America expects from its presidential candidate families: as loving, excited, energetic cheerleaders. But they also shoved the veiled yet decisive question haunting this campaign directly onto center stage: Has the United States come far enough that it can accept a black family living in the White House? Can America accept the leadership of a man who identifies himself as black?

John McCain and Barack Obama: Not just Republican against Democrat.
Getty Images; DPA

John McCain and Barack Obama: Not just Republican against Democrat.

Obama's skin color has, to be sure, already been touched upon in the campaign. For the most part, though, references have been veiled and indirect -- and occasionally underhanded. Hillary Clinton broached the subject with particularly elegant perfidy. When she brought up Robert Kennedy and Barack Obama in the same sentence, the subtext was: Well, Bobby Kennedy was murdered, so maybe it'd be a good thing if I stay in the race. Bill Clinton compared Obama to Jesse Jackson, a man that has made many white voters uncomfortable in the past. And Geraldine Ferraro, who would have become vice president if Walter Mondale hadn't lost the 1984 election to Ronald Reagan, complained about Obama allegedly being treated better by journalists because of his race -- as if it were some priceless advantage to be born black in America and an insurmountable disadvantage to be white.

For the Clintons -- who prefer to attribute all their defeats to plots, conspiracies or monumental injustices -- it is incredibly difficult to throw their support behind the man who defeated them. Obama was better than Hillary: better at speaking, cleverer in the way he ran his campaign. He was the cool new kid on the block. His skin color certainly didn't tip the scales in the Democratic primary battle, but it seemed not to be a disadvantage either.

Now, though, it's McCain against Obama, Republican against Democrat, old against young -- and, more than anything else, white against black. McCain, of course, hasn't broached the race issue directly. But indirectly, the argument goes like this: To be white means to be like John McCain -- patriotic, bedecked with medals and honors, self-sacrificing and a hero. To be black means to be like Barack Obama -- eager for the spotlight, similar to a Hollywood actor, egocentric, flippant and lacking truly American values. White America is -- subtly and adroitly -- being mobilized against black America.

The Enlightened, the Reluctant and the Fickle

In short, it is not just Russia and the Georgian war that have suddenly granted McCain serious-contender status in this election. The race issue has dogged the United States from the very moment of the country's birth and remains, despite being pushed into the background by political correctness, unresolved. Now, the issue of race is playing a role in weakening Obama and strengthening McCain and almost no one wants to talk about it. Indeed, the issue of race in the campaign has become the province of the lunatic fringe -- such as radio personality Rush Limbaugh. Obama's candidacy, he said on air, "goes back to the fact that nobody had the guts to stand up and say no to a black guy." He also referred to Obama as the "little black man child."

Limbaugh may be extreme, but it's not difficult to imagine that a large percentage of Republican voters are also wary of seeing a black president. More important, though, is whether the swing voters will be willing to vote for a black man over a white man. And it also depends on the fickle Democrats, many of whom voted for Ronald Reagan in the '80s. Now they must choose between voting for Obama -- or maybe, in the end, McCain.

It will also, of course, depend upon the aggrieved and defeated Hillary Clinton and how well she fades into the background after her Tuesday night speech in Denver. Obama, for his part, can only help himself by holding his tongue when it comes to Clinton. There are, after all, a number of white skeptics who would have preferred to see Clinton as the Democratic candidate. Race, after all, was a hidden factor in the primaries as well.

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